Book Review: Natasha Ria El-Scari's 'Screaming Times'
Natasha Ria El-Scari
The first poem in Natasha Ria El-Scari’s Screaming Times launches a new war on a lie 397 years in the making.
That’s how long it’s been since African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, a full 157 years before America’s declaration “that all men are created equal.” The poem, “Treat Me Like a White Man,” is weary, incisive, and funny. “I hate being a Black woman,” El-Scari writes, “don’t wanna be an African woman.”
It has nothing, and I do mean nothing
with the way I look, the way I walk, the way I sing
For generations, writers of color have faced racism from readers and publishers, meaning not only simple rejection but also a deeper artistic exclusion. In the arts as in the rest of society, “American” came to mean “white American,” “humanity” to mean “white humanity.” El-Scari is fearless in refuting ideas like these. She recognizes the humanity of her audience, whatever their race.
Her poems, she tells us, were written “with the vision to be read aloud, to be performed, to be heard on the stage, in a classroom or on the street.” They should also “be read with a rage.” The forceful phonic quality of her lines makes it easier to navigate complicated breaks and creative formatting, allowing us to focus not on the text but on the voice behind it.
Many of the poems share devastating truths. Several deal with what it means to be a mother of a black son in the United States. This theme — explored in “Boys Boys Boys” and “Why I Haven’t Written a Trayvon Martin Poem Yet,” to name just two — deliver some of the collection’s best moments. From “Why I Haven’t Written a Trayvon Martin Poem Yet”:
I don’t want to talk about it. It’s not a headline.
It’s a nightmare. It’s a possibility.
It’s a heart skips a beat midnight phone call
that only ends up being a butt dial,
yet you never make it back to sleep.
Have you ever had to grieve in public?
On the next page, she imagines what would happen to her if she relented and let her own son “be a kid,” even just for a second. Would he be gunned down by police, or by a would-be vigilante? This, she explains, is why she’s reluctant to comment on the shooting of Trayvon Martin. To her,
It’s more than a headline, a t-shirt, replayed 911 calls,
so much more than your social pornography.
It’s their son.
It’s her baby. My silence is paralysis,
an homage to her pain.
Several of the poems here — some only a single page, others as long as five or six — deal with El-Scari’s identity as a mother (“for my second grade daughter who almost shut down…”), and others deal with race and larger societal problems directly (“everyone wants a safe poem for MLK”). All are well-crafted.
Still other poems dwell on the physical, and delight in being a little silly even if they never lose their passionate undertones. These include odes to male genitalia (“King Ding-A-Ling” and “Summons”) and poems celebrating the female body (“Ode to My Body,” “how to domesticate a cat, well never mind you can’t but how to make it purrrrrr”). Some deal with being a citizen of the world, and with her personal belief in Jesus Christ.
These are all different aspects of her personality, and El-Scari explores each part of her identity with the same introspection. These different subjects complicate the collection, providing readers with a richer, more interesting experience overall, but never compromise the book’s emotional core.
El-Scari is funny, profane, and insightful, a person who has a lot to say and who isn’t afraid to speak out on everything from income inequality to her belief in God. Her voice is part of a recent paradigm shift in publishing that addresses concerns about race, class, gender, and sexual orientation head on. That doesn’t mean everything’s changed, of course.
Luckily for us, and for readers who love poetry, literature, and performance, there will always be artists who challenge age-old assumptions, who shatter stereotypes, who transcend cliché, and who refuse to compromise. El-Scari is that kind of artist.
With incisive rhetoric and creative imagery, she is challenging readers to rethink their assumptions, to open their eyes, and to lift their voices alongside her own.
Ben Pfeiffer's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Kansas City Star. He's also the Interviews Editor at The Rumpus. Visit him at benpaulpfeiffer.com.